Turkey in the Straw, the controversial.
Washington, a nice spring afternoon on the Mall, the huge and grassy esplanade borded with museums and monuments.
Separated by 300 meters, two ice trucks call to customers by playing the same first bars of a traditional tune. Just the first 15 seconds as a loop, with the sound quality of a bad sample in a Chinese cheap toy.
Yes, it is awful.
Played by most ice trucks in the country, especially in touristic areas, the tune is "Turkey in the Straw", a jam filddle tune, often played as an instrumental even if lyrics exist. And these words are most of the issue. Let us awake our memory.
In France, you may know this tune if you ever stayed in kids holidays centers. Funny words for kids ears :
"Tes oreilles tombent-elles ? (Are your ears falling down?)
Saurais-tu les ramasser, (Would you know how to pick them up?)
Les entortiller ou bien les nouer, (twist them or tie them)
Les passer par d'sus l'épaule, (wear them over your shoulder)
En visière de pompier, (like a fireman's eyeshade)
Tes oreilles tombent-elles?"(Are your ears falling down?)
Instrumentale by Sam Bush & Sierra Hull (starting at 1'50).
According to many sources, it seems "Turkey in the Straw" was based on an old Irish Ballad called "The Old Rose Tree" (or "Rose Tree"), first published in U.K. in 1795. Not a surprise considering the various origins of the United States traditional repertoire.
As usual in the 19th century, many versions came out, often with nonsense but funny lyrics, like in "Old Joe Clark".
So, what is the issue ?
Not really controversial until now, right ?
Then came the infamous minstrel shows with their racist representation of black people. These are depicted ignorant, raw and stupid, just happy to dance and sing with a heavy and illiterate accent. The actors, white people most of the time, their faces painted in black, played cartoonish characters, grossly. There came the expression "black face".
The melody in "Turkey in the Straw" has often be used to carry such mocking words, as in the song "Zip Coon", published in 1834, several writers claiming the authorship.
Sadly nowdays, many musicians cannot make a difference between the tune and the racist words. Among them Afro American players. And this, one can easily understand. Turkey in the Straw is not in their repertoire anymore, and they can feel injured or hurt just hearing it.
I met Jake Blount, an old time banjo player, at the Ashokan Center, Ny, in 2017, for the "Old Time Rollick" with Bruce Molsky and Deborah Clifford. He rose my interest on this matter.
He speaks clearly of it in a 2019 Banjo Newsletter.
So, should we let the turkey in the straw or in oblivion?
Now, here I am with so many questions I would not even have thought of before hearing about minstrel shows and their connoted racism.
Is it right to keep on playing "Turkey in the Straw" ?
Is it ethical ?
Does it concern us, European musicians, as this tune, here, is way older than minstrel shows?
If someone writes racist lyrics for "Jingle Bells", should we ban the tune ?
Today, I sincerely feel unable to arbitrate or make a decision, but it is a fact : my behavior has changed. I still love playing this old tune, it is a real treat for a fiddle player. But when playing for an audience, I always tell about its story and the awful deviations. It is, at least, an occasion to talk about minstrel shows.
Today in the United States, discomfort and even discontent are strong enough to have the ice cream company Good Humor change their jingle all over the country. Would they improve the sound quality, no one would complain.
Article rédigé par Ti' Pierre
The story fo "Turkey in the Straw" is well documented on Wikipedia.
Reccorded in Austin, Texas : Tennessee Mafia Jug Band "Turkey In The Straw". This version shows that the melody is really suitable for improvisation.
Simple and entertaining versions : a "soundie" recorded in 1942, a little Spike Jones style (George Rock, the trumpet player will join Spike Jones later).
Sadly, minstrel shows extened out of the U.S.A., until mid 20th century as in Quebec. In U.K., the famous BBC itself produced "The Black & White Minstrel Show" until 1978 (2016 documentary by the same BBC4).
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